Monday, 3 February 2014

Three Goals for Every Character



You can break down each character’s goals into three types: professional, private and personal.

‘Professional’ refers to the job that needs to be done. A monster has to be killed, a treasure has to be found, a wedding has to take place etc. This physical goal drives the main story and gives the hero something to do.

‘Private’ is something that characters want for themselves. It may not be the main focus of the story as it doesn’t necessarily affect other characters, but a character that only acts out of pure altruism and self-sacrifice is both unrealistic and a little annoying.

‘Personal’ is more about the psychological needs of the character. Whatever flaws or hang-ups the character might have (and he should definitely have some), there will have to be a resolution or understanding reached at some point in the story. This aspect is often the most rewarding and satisfying in a novel, but also risks being the most clichéd and obvious.

These three elements are often very closely linked and intertwined, but they can also be very separate.  Both approaches have their advantages and their disadvantages.

A typical example of a story with closely bound goals would be something like this: a knight has to kill a rampaging dragon (professional); he’s in love with the princess the dragon has captured (private); he fears he is not good enough to be allowed to marry into the royal family (personal).

An example of a story with more divergent goals might be something like this: a government spy has to stop the villain detonating a nuclear bomb; he has to tell his girlfriend he’s not an accountant before they get married; he’s a recovering alcoholic and constantly struggling against relapse.

In the dragon example you can see that each goal is directly affected by the others and it is pretty straightforward to keep all three in the mix as the story progresses. The problem is likely to arise at the end of the story as everything suddenly gets resolved at the same time. All that build up and suddenly the dragon’s dead, the girl’s in his arms and the future looks bright. And all in one paragraph.  It can make for a rushed and unsatisfying ending.

In cases like this an uninteresting solution is usually due to an uninteresting problem. Adding a few wrinkles (the princess has fallen for the dragon, the king has sent assassins after the knight, the knight converts to Buddhism...) can help give the ending less of a one-shot and done feel to it.

With the spy example, while showing different aspects of the hero’s life can add depth and complexity, it can also create a mishmash of ideas that don’t appear to have anything to do with one another. Trying to push these elements together can feel forced and contrived. Out of nowhere it’s revealed the villain is the long lost brother of the girl our hero is set to marry. Or he happens to attend the same AA meeting as the bad guy’s main henchman. How convenient...

To some degree there is an expectation and acceptance of these sorts of contrivances from readers. We all know if a cop is terrified of heights that at some point they are going to find themselves up on a roof chasing the killer. In those situations it’s not so much about avoiding expectation as it is about how you handle it. With enough tension and momentum it’s possible to pull off the most outrageous occurrences, but it’s also possible to fall flat on your face.

In both kinds of setups (intertwined or divergent) the main factor is going to be the character. They are always the one constant shared by all goals, so making that character as engaging and three-dimensional as possible makes it a lot easier for reader’s to transition between the three types of goals without feeling things are either too rushed or too random.

Easier said than done, but it is the third element, the ‘personal’, that usually gets overlooked. Often this inner-conflict is just the obvious thing you see all the time in a particular type of story. A love story where the girl is afraid to love after a bad experience, a thriller where the hero has to keep his rage in check, a fantasy where the chosen one isn’t sure he’s up to the job.

There’s nothing wrong with fulfilling an expectation even if it’s one that’s been done before, many stories are built on archetypes people like to read about. But when you settle for a generic attitude or posture without thinking about the reasons behind it, it comes across as superficial and unconvincing.

Not that you need to have a degree in psychology before you start writing, but spending a little time thinking about the specifics of what troubles your characters when they’re lying alone in the dark (even though that scene might never make it into the story) can make all the difference.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.

40 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think the personal aspect drove the story idea for Byron as much as the professional and kept the storyline going for two more books.
Knight converts to Buddhism - funny!

Sweeper of Dreams said...

Really interesting way of viewing character motivations and actions. The dragon story simplified your points very well, and now you have my brow furrowed as I scrutinize some of my characters. I tend to focus too much on the personal to the detriment of the professional and private. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Alex - both attributes working in tandem make for a satisfying story, I think.

@Sweeper - the personal tends to work best when you know it in depth but only reveal glimpses to the reader. Choosing which glimpses to show is the tricky part.

Theresa Milstein said...

What a succinct way of putting it! Thank you. I'm sharing.

Elizabeth Twist said...

You're the best at taking complex storytelling problems and breaking them down. Seriously. The best.

Saumya said...

This is an excellent post and gave me a lot to think about!

Jay Noel said...

An excellent explanation for character goals, and I will have to go back and look at my own stuff. I also enjoy books with a little twist - when a character attains the goals, and it's NOT exactly a good thing. A be-careful-what-you-wish-for kinda dealio!

Rusty Carl said...

Great job here. I've always tried to have the main 'plot' goal and a personal, emotionally driven goal for my main character, but I've never had three. Well, at least not consciously. This is great here. I'll think on this and see if I can incorporate it.

Lexa Cain said...

Perfect explanation, as always. And you have this eerie way of coming up with things just when I need them in my WIP. Your example of the alcoholic spy inspired me. Thanks!

Michael Di Gesu said...

Some EXCELLENT points, Mood. Thanks. I always appreciate how you spell things out for us. Well done.

I Tweeted this for you.

Karen Walker said...

Wow, I couldn't fall asleep so I got up and started blogging. Thank you for this - I'm struggling with one of my characters and this gives me a different way to approach it.

mooderino said...

@Theresa - cheers, much appreciated.

@Elizabeth - thanks, nice of you to say.

@Saumya - glad to be of some help.

@Jay - me too. there are a lot of different ways it can turn out.

@Rusty - in many cases they work their way into the story without us even being aware of it, but it's good to have a little control over these things.

@Lexa - cool!

@Michael - cheers for the tweet.

@Karen - yvw,

Ellie Garratt said...

I'd never thought of breaking a character's goals down in this way. I shall be applying it to my characters later today. Thank you!

Missy said...

Great post! This will definitely help me with rewrites and subplots.

Lady Lilith said...

How very informative. Thank you for sharing.

mooderino said...

@Ellie - breaking things down to see how they work is pretty much how I spend most of my time. Putting them back together again, that's the tricky part.

Lydia Kang said...

Love how you showed the differences between these types of goals. Brilliant.

Hey, thank you so much for featuring Control on your side bar! :D

nutschell said...

I love this 3P method! I'll have to make sure my stories make use of this!

nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

Karen Lange said...

I like this! Thanks a bunch. You always share such great info. No wonder you won that recent award. Congrats!

Cynthia said...

You're right that a hero who is heroic for the sake of being heroic is a bit flat--- as writers, we need to know more about why the hero does what s/he does.

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. I always make sure to have all those aspects in my characters. And I often lay in bed just like that thinking about my characters!

Carol Riggs said...

Hi! Man, I need to run my latest WIP through this sieve. Great idea to have all these things. :)

Gina Gao said...

This is an excellent post with a lot of food for thought. Thanks for sharing.

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

Donna Hole said...

I sometimes have problems with the middle of the story; it lags. These three questions might help me when I'm struggling to bridge that gap between the beginning and the end. This is good food for thought.

......dhole

mooderino said...

@Missy - cheers.

@Lilith - my pleasure.

@Lydia - hope life as an author is treating you well.

@nutschell - The 3P Method, I like it.

@Karen - cheers.

@Cynthia - I think it only gets really interesting when you go below the surface.

@Christine - I daydream whole backstories I never use, but knowing it helps a lot.

@Carol - helps to know if anything's missing, although you still have to come up with something to put in there.

@Gina - you're very welcome.

@Donna - once you start being aware of the 3Ps (TM) new threads tends to emerge all over the place.

Elise Fallson said...

While I was reading the dragon example, I was thinking, the princess needs to fall for the dragon. ;)

Another great post Mood. I'm wondering if I don't have a character whose 3ps (or at least one of them) change by the end of the book, it's not really cut and dry....I need to think about this....damn it... ;)

Lynda R Young said...

retweeted. This post might explain why I struggle so much with endings because I love going for the intertwined goals so I end up with obvious endings. I must stretch more!!! hehehe.

CrazyMai said...

Your article was really helpful :) It gave me a lot to think about.

Rick Watson said...

I'm about to begin my first work of fiction. Need all the help I can get .
R

LD Masterson said...

Interesting. I took a class once that broke the character's goals down into internal and external. I think the three part breakdown in more useful. Thanks.

(I'm entering the comment twice because I think the first attempt disappeared. My apologies if I end up repeating myself.)

mooderino said...

@Elise - changing Ps are a good way to keep the story interesting, both for the reader and the writer.

@Lybda - we could all do with a bitof a stretch., Cheers for the RT.

@Mai - cool, glad it helped.

@Rick - you and me both.

@LD - A lot of writer will work in all three without even having to think about it. Doesn't hurt to think about it though.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Very interesting post Moody. I like the way you have summed up a character's goals: professional, personal and private. For the book I finished my character's goals are both personal and private.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - you can often intertwine goals, in fact it usually makes the story stronger.

Medeia Sharif said...

Great post and I'll be thinking about these three elements the next time I outline a story.

Denise Covey said...

I like these points. That's why I can never finish a novel...clever people like you keep finding ways for me to improve!

I see your Wattpad badge. I've just joined Wattpad so will find you there. I haven't learned how to do much yet, but am working on it when I have a spare mo', which isn't very often.

The Armchair Squid said...

Interesting thoughts!

Margo Kelly said...

Great post! Thanks for the insight. I'm off to analyze my characters. :)

Sarah Allen said...

I have to say, I greatly admire your ability to consistently come up with practical, relevant and helpful posts. This is another one.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

mooderino said...

@Medeia - glad you found it useful.

@Denise - I haven't posted anything there for a while but hope to soon.

@Squid - cheers.

@Margo - Thanks very much.

@sarah - mostly it's a combination of daydreaming and rambling.

Amanda said...

This is really helpful in getting to know characters better. I just found your blog through My Name is Not Bob and I'm really loving your posts!

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